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September 12, 2006

Where Now?

Patricia A. Kelly

Today we are into the sixth year since September 11, 2001. We remain at war. That now infamous date found me in the Czech Republic.

Upon returning to my hotel from a last-minute shopping excursion, I found, on the lobby television, CNN headlines shouting "America Under Attack!" Instead of going home the next morning, I had an additional week in Prague, awaiting a new flight.

Our small family group, touring my mom's ancestral lands, moved to a less expensive hotel - from an Art Nouveau palace in the ancient city to a Communist-era block hotel in a working class neighborhood. The owner of the new hotel offered to loan us money, if we needed it.

At important landmarks around the city were the now-traditional tributes to tragedy, mounds of flowers and trinkets and photos of the World Trade Center. A battleground for centuries, the Czech Republic, and its citizens, offered condolences to America, the country that had just lost its innocence in the first-ever major attack upon the U.S. mainland.

As a people, the Czechs have experienced many battles - more than I know about. But historically the most important was fought at Austerlitz, during the Napoleonic Wars. In the memorial to the unbelievable thousands of dead from that battle lies a box covered with plexiglas, filled with bones. Local farmers plough them up still, more than 150 years later, and deposit them there. When full, the box is placed in the burial chamber and replaced with a new one, which also fills up.

A world-famous shrine is the site of the village of Lidice, near Prague. During World War II, the village was leveled in retaliation for the assassination of a German officer by a member of the Czech underground. The only remaining structure from this ancient stone village, for some odd reason, is the basement wall of the house where the village men were herded before being slaughtered.

The children of the village are memorialized by a group of bronze likenesses, standing in the middle of an open field; it features exact replicas of old photos. The bronze for the statues came from melted-down statues of Communist tyrants, erected in town squares during the occupation.

There are no statues of Jewish children in any public area in the Czech Republic, none that I saw. There is, however, a museum in Prague, consisting of seven synagogues, spared by Hitler. He intended to use them to develop his own museum, commemorating the vanquishing of those he viewed as less than human. He had no need to create the yellow badge or the ghetto. They were invented centuries earlier by European Christians: Jews were reviled, sequestered, falsely accused of stealing Christian babies for ritual sacrifice, among other excuses.

Hitler slaughtered 80,000 of Prague's 120,000 Jews. The few who returned after the war found others occupying their homes, and no restitution for lost property.

Our guide, Janna, lived though both Nazi and Communist occupations of her country. Her grandmother owned an apartment building which was confiscated by the Communists. Unlike the experience of the Jews, victims of the Communists were compensated for their losses.

Janna's family received part ownership in another building after the Soviets departed. In response to my question about restitution for the Jews, Janna replied that the government had just begun paying a pension to actual Holocaust survivors, the equivalent of about $3,000 U.S. per year. I wondered how many were eligible to receive this generous amount, so many years after the event.

Janna was short and fat, with bad teeth and horrible veins, after years of poor food and limited medical care. Younger that I, she looked and felt much older. I, well nourished and cared for throughout my childhood, with teeth from ear to ear, did not correct her assumption.

We were essentially the same, though, two women who married, divorced, and struggled through raising our children. Living under communism in a land of potatoes, wilted carrots and stale cabbage, she had to worry about their nutrition. Several steps up along Maslov's hierarchy, I worried about their psyches in a land filled with divorce, sexual freedom, excessive materialism and, newly, real death on the TV screen.

She lived in a land of admitted slaughter and injustice, while I lived in the land of the free, the same land, however, of slavery past, and of a 1,000 unprosecuted lynchings of black males in the state of Mississippi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We were more the same than different, and now our country has joined theirs, not only in the universality of injustice, but also in the knowledge that we can be killed in an act of war while sitting at our desks at work.

Where should we really go from here?

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